Yes, It's Possible To Intentionally Forget Something—Here's How

Girl outside with wind blowing hair into face

Image by Josh Parsons / Unsplash

Most people have probably experienced at least one thing in their life that they'd rather not remember—hence the cultish popularity of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While there's no known technology thus far that can erase unwanted memories from your brain, a new study published in the journal JNeurosci has discovered exactly what happens in the brain when you're trying to forget something. As it turns out, forgetting may involve a lot of active, thoughtful focus on the unwanted memory before it can really disappear.

Researchers told a group of young adults to try to either remember or forget images they'd been shown of neutral scenery and faces, all while their brains were being analyzed via fMRI. The scientists found that the brain's visual cortex was actually more active while trying to forget than while trying to remember, suggesting a person working to intentionally forget something actually needed to place a significant amount of focused attention on the task.

That's contrary to what previous research has shown: In the past, intentional forgetting has been associated with more "passive processes" like withdrawing attention from the unwanted experience or just consciously deciding to stop recalling a memory, the researchers explain in the paper describing their findings.

"The human brain cannot remember everything—forgetting has a critical role in curating memories and discarding unwanted information," they write. "We show new evidence that intentional forgetting involves an enhancement of memory processing in sensory cortex to achieve desired forgetting of recent visual experiences. This enhancement temporarily boosts the activation of the memory representation and renders it vulnerable to disruption… Contrary to intuition, deliberate forgetting may involve more rather than less attention to unwanted information."

In other words, a person may need to think pretty hard about something they're trying to forget as part of that "erasure" process. Importantly, however, the study found that thinking too hard can also backfire and make the memory stick. People were most successful with intentional forgetting when their visual cortex was moderately activated.

So what does that mean for the average person seeking a spotless mind? One way to interpret these results is to recognize that ignoring an experience completely is not going to make it disappear from our minds—especially when it comes to the ones we most want to forget, which are also likely the most painful, shameful, embarrassing, or frustrating ones. There must be at least some level of processing and acknowledging of the unwanted experience before it can then be set aside for good.

"In order to heal, we must be willing to feel our pain," life transitions coach Sheryl Paul writes at mbg, describing how to move on from heartbreak. "What this looks like in practice is different for everyone, but it always includes slowing down to an organic pace—as opposed to a technological pace—closing your screens, turning inward, and allowing yourself to cry, move, draw, or even just breathe through the pain in your heart."

There may be no way to totally erase the most painful experiences we go through a la Eternal Sunshine, but allowing ourselves to place focused attention on them might be a key part of the moving-on process.

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